National Hockey League Media Coverage: A history of Passion and Struggles

By Alexandra Gharghoury and Danielle Ohl

Introduction

In North America, sports are divided into the “Big 4”: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. The United States cites baseball as its national pastime, although Nielsen ratings might say football. In Canada, it’s all about hockey and the National Hockey League. In the past decade, the NHL’s popularity is on the rise in the United States, largely because of the continual growth in media coverage. This comprehensive history of media coverage of the second oldest “Big 4” league in the United State and Canada might explain the difference between the NHL's popularity in the neighboring countries. This paper, with the backing of the National Hockey League, attempts to delineate the rich history of the people and networks without which hockey might have never attained the adoration it enjoys today.

The Beginning of Hockey Coverage

          

According to Total Hockey: The Encyclopedia of the National Hockey League , hockey was first referenced in the Colonial Patriot in Nova Scotia in 1829. It was called “break-shins,” which later turned to “shinny,” the term used for pick-up hockey games. “Ricket” was first mentioned in the Boston Evening Gazette in 1859. The National Hockey League would not be established until 1917, only a few years before the Golden Age of Sports. By this time, 25 percent of newspaper sales were due to growing sports sections and wire services . As the National Hockey League became more prominent, so did its coverage and staff.

The Hockey News began publication in 1947 and is the largest hockey magazine in North America.With a readership of more than 2 million,it has also expanded to a digital subscription. The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, founded in 1967, consists of print and online writers who vote anonymously for National Hockey League awards such as the Hart Memorial Trophy, Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, Calder Memorial Trophy, James Norris Memorial Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy, Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy and Frank J. Selke Trophy. Transparency has come into question when Alex Ovechkin was voted onto the 2013 year end All Star roster as a left and right wing.


New Technology

As technology advanced, so did hockey media. With the advent of radio, families across America were getting their news, entertainment, and hockey in a whole new way. Radio found early commercial success in the mid-1890s after its invention in 1894 . Guglielmo Marconi’s creation produced unimagined media outlets and introduced a previously unattainable national market. With this development came the expansion of sports media coverage. Radio stations sent out sports information and accounts of games from the beginning of regular broadcasting in the early 1920s. Traditionally, the first full broadcast of a hockey game is attributed to Lionel Dyke “Pete” Parker of CKCK Radio, on March 14, 1923. His play-by-play account of a game between the Regina Capitals and Edmonton Eskimos, however, came a month after renowned broadcaster Foster Hewitt’s first play-by-play, on Feb 16 of the same year. By 1924, months before the NHL expanded to include what is now known as the “Original Six", the Canadian National Railway radio network broadcast a Stanley Cup game between the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators on a new Ottawa station. The same network began transmissions of the famous program Hockey Night in Canada, originally termed General Motors Hockey Broadcast, in 1931.

The program originally featured the Toronto Maple Leafs and was hosted by Gordon Calder with play-by-play announcer Foster Hewitt and color analyst Percy Lesuer. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which succeeded the CNR and Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, broadcast the show from Maple Leaf Gardens every Saturday night, starting at 9p.m. Hewitt “did more for hockey than any man alive” according to former NHL coach and manager Punch Imalach. Hired by Conn Smythe as the “director of radio” for the Gardens, Hewitt and his shrill voice propagated hockey to more than 20 radio stations across Canada . Due to the immense power of CBC Radio’s transmitters, the program was able to reach Canada’s North American neighbor. American NHL cities Chicago, New York and Boston, as well as many cities with minor league or college teams, flocked to their radios when their local team faced the Leafs. CBC Radio aired the program on Saturday night until 1965, and then on Sunday until 1976, when coverage moved exclusively to television

Coverage in the United States was never as widely organized as in Canada. In the 1935-36 NHL season, the Mutual Broadcasting System aired a few Chicago Black Hawks [sic] games but suspended further coverage until 1956. After a few trial and error efforts throughout the decade, the U.S. gained national coverage of the All-Star Game and Stanley Cup Finals through a two-year deal with ABC . In the years following this deal, the NHL passed broadcast rights from ABC, to Star Broadcasting , to Global Sports Network , to WestwoodOne . With the advent of more advanced technology, satellite radio began to pick up NHL broadcasts. As of 2007, XM Satellite Radio, a division of Sirius, is the official satellite broadcaster of the NHL, and covers 100 percent of NHL games including playoffs and finals .

Radio legend Foster Hewitt called his first televised hockey game for the 1952 Memorial Cup , ,Canada’s Amateur Hockey Association’s championship. That same year, Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Hockey Night in Canada began itstelevision broadcasts on Saturday nights. Hewitt’s first televised National Hockey League game was Toronto versus Boston. The 1966-67 National Hockey League season was the beginning of color broadcasts. CBC began showing double headers on Saturdays when Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings so Canada could continue to follow its favorite player. TSN airs national games during the week, shares playoff games with CBC, and holds the regional rights for the Montreal Canadians and Winnipeg Jets. Sportsnet has regional rights for the remaining Canadian teams. RDS covers French language broadcasts for the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. It was announced that Rogers Communications, which owns Sportsnet, signed a 12-year deal with the NHL to hold exclusive rights beginning in the 2014-2015 season. This takes away national games and playoffs from TSN and will grant the network creative direction of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.

In the United States, National Hockey League coverage was not as stable and much more complicated. CBS began airing Saturday afternoon games from 1956-1960. NHL games ceased American broadcasting from 1960-1966 because teams’ owners did not want the Players’ Association to receive a cut of the television deal. When the league returned to television in 1966, NBC began airing color games during the playoffs, while CBS held rights for the NHL “Game of the Week” until 1972. NBC had television rights from 1972-1975, and encouraged the league to put names on the back of jerseys for their commentators and viewers to easily identify players. After being dropped by NBC, the league created its own network in 1975 from independent stations that covered 55 percent of the country. These stations usually showed the local team’s games, rather than a nationwide broadcast of one game. USA Network aired games from 1980-1985 and ESPN began their first NHL broadcasts for most of 1980-1988; USA Network gained exclusive rights from 1982-1985. ESPN showed 33 national games until SportsChannel America outbid them in 1988. SportsChannel’s coverage was small, only one-third on ESPN’s markets. During this time, SportsChannel simulcasted games from regional sports networks. From 1992-1994, ESPN aired games on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday night while ABC aired six regional telecasts on Sunday afternoons in March. ESPN continued to hold rights through 1999, but the NHL also had Fox televise Saturday and Sunday afternoon games. Fox also showed the All-Star Games, Conference Finals, and Stanley Cup Finals. For the 1999-2000 season, ABC,ESPN and ESPN2 signed an exclusive five-year deal worth $600 million. After the 2004-05 lockout, which eliminated the season, ESPN opted out of its new two-year contract, and Comcast stepped in with a three-year contract to show games on the OLN Network. During this contract, OLN became Versus and Versus became the NBC Sports Network. NBC also aired a Game of the Week on weekend afternoons. Small-term contracts with NBC continued until 2011 when the NHL and NBC reached an agreement for a 10-year partnership worth about $2 billion. This agreement encompasses the largest amount of national televised NHL games to date, including the Thanksgiving Showdown, the Winter Classic, Hockey Day in America, and all Stanley Cup playoff games. Coverage of individual teams varies by market and teams have exclusive contracts for regional coverage with stations such as Fox Sports and Comcast SportsNet.

NHL Centre Ice in Canada and NHL Center Ice in the United States are the out-of-market season subscriptions available to show every team’s regular season games, along with the first two rounds of the playoffs. The final two rounds of the playoffs are nationally televised by the respective country’s rights holders.


New Media

The advent of Internet was revolutionary because of the technological capabilities it made possible. Not only do these capabilities allow for the transition of traditional media – radio, newspaper, and magazine – to a digital format, they also create the opportunity for innovative expansion.

          

Tim Berners-Lee brought the World Wide Web into the world in 1989, changing the face of sports media. The NHL jumped onto the scene, with the launch of NHL.com in 1996. Since the introduction of this site, as well as TSN.ca, and ESPN.com, hockey fans get instant access to more information than traditional media can provide. Fans can also selectively search the Web for specific information based on team preference. Tracking teams online has become more than just a pastime for hockey fans . In 2008, the league redesigned its website and launched its fan database . As of 2011, NHL.com exists in seven different languages, has a site for every club and a page for every player, making it one of the most expansive sports related websites on the Internet.

The league has also taken advantage of rapidly developing social media and smartphone technology, and has over 2 million followers on both Twitter and Facebook. The impressive standing that the league, its teams, players and media personnel have on social media allows the NHL to broaden its audience and get instant feedback from fans. Social media revolutionizes the way that the larger organization communicates on a personal level with the millions of supporters that would otherwise remain faceless.

In addition to the extensive network of social media profiles, fans get a closer look into the NHL via smartphone applications. NHL GameCenter, which was revamped in 2009, is an app that provides up to date statistics and analysis concerning the NHL and its various clubs.



GameCenter Live allows fans access to all out-of-market games with a subscription, a huge leap from the one or two games nationally broadcast on television in the 1970s and 80s. A variety of other apps, including each club’s official application, TSN Hockey and NBC Live Extra, provide spectators with similar access and media with new channels for content and coverage. On Nov 26, the NHL and Rogers Communications announced a landmark 12-year deal giving the media giant exclusive rights to the NHL on all of its platforms, including the Internet. This $5.2 billion deal is a testament to the influential and lucrative power the Internet has as a media outlet.


Conclusion

While you can still catch up on local scores in your morning paper, listen to play-by-play on the radio, watch hours or pre- and post-game coverage, the Internet is becoming the main source of content for NHL fans. With instant access to hockey insiders and up to the second updates on their favorite players, the mobility of the sport has kept--and will continue to keep both die-hard and casual fans captivated. Sports media can only expand from here. Though technology is often viewed as unpredictable by the general public, the ideas that galvanize development are already in the minds of media and communication personnel around the league and at various corporations. They intend to bring the fan closer than ever to the action by developing the NHL equivalent of the widely used “skycam” and microphoning players and coaches during games.

Ice hockey, to many people, is more than a sport. As the underdog in the world of North American fanaticism, devotees make up for their lesser numbers with greater passion. From the beginning of the NHL until now, hockey fans have needed their fix of games and glory on the ice - and media has delivered. From 19th century newspapers to 21st century smartphone applications, innovative media pursuits have provided intimate access to professional ice hockey.